Classic ThinkPads comprise a uniquely prestigious and beloved class among laptops. Their mixture of excellent build quality, robust hardware, and utilitarian, eminently practical design language, position them as some of the best business-class machines that have ever been on the market. Furthermore, the admirable philosophy of user upgradability, longevity by design, and broad firmware and software compatibility built onto them makes it easy to understand why there’s such a devoted community centered around these computers. For clarification, when talking about classic ThinkPads I mostly refer to machines of the IBM era and early Lenovo days, up to the line of laptops equipped with third-generation Intel processors (i.e. the “Ivy Bridge” generation of the legendary T430) and, if some flexibility is allowed, to the generation immediately afterwards (the “Haswell” generation of the controversial but still much beloved T440p).
I wrote a post a while ago discussing why I think old (ish) ThinkPads, especially those with Intel Core processors between the second and fourth generations, still make excellent everyday computers, as well as unrivaled machines to learn both Linux and hardware maintenance. On this post, I want to discuss a unique and intriguing custom laptop, which is a fascinating mixture of classic design, sturdy ThinkPad goodness, and modern performance. This computer is in my view one of the most exciting creations of the ThinkPad community, hopefully standing as a signal of many more amazing enthusiast ThinkPad projects to come. I’m talking about the ThinkPad X2100 by modder Xue Yao. What follows is not a detailed, technical review, but rather a general appreciation by an amateurish enthusiast. If you are interested in learning more, including inquiring with Xue Yao and possibly buying a unit, I am leaving links at the end of this post. His website as a detailed breakdown of all possible specs and configurations, so I don’t think it’s necessary to repeat those here.
There is an interesting story to this machine. Earlier incarnations of it, under the name X210, were created by the Chinese group 51nb. This group is also responsible for other admirable custom ThinkPads, such as the X62, a laptop that combines the classic Lenovo X61 chassis with fairly modern hardware. As stated on his website, Xue Yao became involved with the X210 project a while back, and has devoted considerable time and effort to it. The X210 originally consisted of a X200, X201, or X201s chassis with a new motherboard sporting an 8th generation quad-core Intel processor. The fourth generation of this machine, renamed X2100 to signify the inclusion of 10th generation processors in it, is the subject of this review.
Configuration and specs
The laptop can be configured with a commendable amount of options. Xue Yao offers various kinds of builds to order. For more experienced users, an option of particular appeal might be simply purchasing the X2100 motherboard and fitting it into an X201 or X200 chassis, which are still a fairly common purchase on eBay. Pre-made barebone kits are also available, which consist of the motherboard already fitted into a chassis with a custom display installed. The user then only needs to provide the batteries (both main and CMOS), storage, and RAM. For convenience, the latter two can be pre-installed by Xue Yao just at his purchasing cost for the components.
In my case, I decided to configure the machine with an hexa-core Intel i7-10710U, 1 TB NVMe SSD storage, 64 GB DDR4 RAM, and a FHD, ~ 12 inch 1920 x 1200 matte IPS panel. I provided my own new X200 9-cell battery, an X200 CMOS battery, and a RavPower 90W USB-C charger. I paid 1773 USD for this unit; the base price was a bit lower, but it ended up being higher after the conversion to Singapore dollars through Paypal. Still, this is still cheaper than many current-day ThinkPads from Lenovo with poorer specs (and much, much worse build quality), so I think this is a very good price given the quality of the machine! Shipping took a couple of months and there was a slight address confusion due to my relocation to a different country, but Xue Yao remained readily reachable and responsive throughout the process.
First impressions and externals
Upon first unboxing, the X2100 screams old ThinkPad goodness. The build quality seems as good as the original X200. Classic design features such as the lid latches, abundant indicator LED lights, the trackpoint, dedicated volume buttons, and the excellent 7-row keyboard are an absolute delight to look at and operate. The unit has also been fitted with modern ports, sporting USB 3.0 and USB-C. These pair wonderfully well with the machine’s legacy ports such as the Lenovo barrel charging port (meaning this machine can share chargers with my T430!), Ethernet, VGA, and a full-size SD card reader. The docking port on the bottom of the machine has been removed, but the USB-C port provides practically the same functionality if you connect a simple hub dongle with expanded ports. The classic keyboard is a joy to type on, and the trackpoint is, in my opinion, an excellent way to navigate the computer only surpassed by an external mouse. I ordered my unit without a touchpad and I have no regrets. A minor complaint here is that the the shape of the USB-C port is a bit unique. The port is somewhat “buried” inside a cavity where the ExpressCard reader used to be on the X200, and so not every USB-C cable I have can fully physically fit into the port. This is a minor issue though, and should be fully bypassed simply by making sure you get USB-C cables with the thinnest profile possible. Considering the kind of retrofitting that went into making this laptop, I understand that there are some physical quirks such as this, so I’m not really bothered by it. On a similar line, the part where the palmrest connects with the rest of the chassis, just above the Ethernet port, came with a rather rough finish and seems to be a bit chipped. It’s purely cosmetic though, and again an understandable occurrence with a custom laptop like this one, so it’s not a big deal for me.
Getting everything to work was a bit quirky, but support and documentation for this machine is plentiful and it gave me enough pointers to get the job done. The stock BIOS this machine ships with needed to be updated, as it doesn’t interface well with the battery, leading to charging issues. Fortunately, flashing an updated BIOS with a patched embedded controller was fairly straightforward, and upon doing that, the machine started charging normally. The laptopt sports a decent battery life; I haven’t done calculations, but it seems to me that battery life is on par with most current-day laptops. Then again, with the current pandemic I’m stuck at home, so I keep the charger connected most of the time anyway, and therefore I haven’t had much real chance to fully gauge battery life.
Linux installation on this machine was a breeze. The BIOS allows easily booting into a USB drive, and my Debian 10 image was installed without any issues. Debian recognized all the hardware (I used the image with non-free firmware to avoid any quirks), and everything in the computer worked properly after installation, without any need for manual configuration or driver or firmware hunting. Upgrading to Debian 11 (testing) was also trivial. This is the ThinkPad standard I’m accustomed to, and I’m glad it was so successfully translated into this machine.
Performance and features
I am quite satisfied with the performance of this machine. For a user with mildly demanding needs mostly limited to data analysis, statistical work, and writing, the specs of this machine are more than enough given my use case, and for everyday usage such as web browsing, document writing, and streaming, this machine is just perfect. I foresee this will remain a viable everyday work machine for quite some time.
Probably the only area which I found less than stellar is the display. Part of this is on me, so let me explain. Xue Yao offers three options for the machine, two of which are 3K 13-inch displays, with the remaining one being a FHD ~ 12-inch matte panel. While the quality on this panel is good, being on par with current-day IPS displays, the size is different from the original X200 panel by a tenth of an inch, so a few pixels on the left are cut. Full disclosure, I was warned of this beforehand, and I decided to go ahead with this panel regardless, so this is not something I blame on the manufacturer. In any case, I didn’t think the cut pixels would bother me, but after working with the display for a while, I somewhat regret not having picked the hiDPI option.
So why my decision to get this panel instead of the 3K option? I remain a bit wary of hiDPI displays due to scaling issues with some applications, and both 13-inch panels offered with the X2100 ditch the built-in webcam, which I wanted to keep. Now, given that the webcam on the FHD version is the stock device, I’ve come to realize you’re not really missing much. If I had to buy the device again, I’d probably choose the 3K display. I think having a bigger, higher resolution, and non-cut screen trumps the presence of a low quality webcam. Besides, a decent USB webcam is pretty cheap nowadays, and it almost isn’t any extra bulk.
So, the bit above about the screen is not really a complaint, but just some thoughts on me making a decision with the configuration I’m not fully happy with. That’s life. A real complaint with the display, though, is that recently two dead pixels appeared. It’s barely noticeable, but I’m a bit concerned about it. Assuming no more will appear, I probably won’t give it any further thought. Maybe I just had bad luck and got the odd panel that happened to have some defective pixels.
The minor qualms I discussed about the X2100 do nothing to sway my overwhelmingly positive perception of this machine. For me, this is almost a dream computer. It packs a very solid modern performance inside the body of a truly classic ThinkPad laptop. I can hardly think of a more awesome computer.
What would I suggest in future iterations of the X2100 to make it even better? For me, (1) figuring out a way to fit a modern laptop webcam in the 3K configurations, (2) adding thunderbolt support to the USB-C port (just imagine attaching an eGPU to this machine!), and (3) possibly figuring out a way to bring back the docking station port would, in my opinion, make for an unquestionable contender for best laptop of all time. I realize that many of these requests probably pose huge technical challenges, but hey, wishful thinking is free. An updated X2100 with the features I mentioned would be an instant re-buy for me.
In terms of customer support, big thumbs up to the manufacturer. Xue Yao behaved very professionally throughout. He responded to all my questions before and after the purchase, made the transaction through Paypal easy, and provided cordial, friendly support to my technical questions after receiving the machine.
Overall, I am very happy with this computer. As a ThinkPad enthusiast, I can’t stress enough how much of a dream machine this is for me. As mentioned, I find the blend between classic ThinkPad quality and contemporary performance absolutely stellar. The few minor quirks I encountered do nothing to detract from my highly positive appreciation of this computer. I look forward to see what new exciting projects Xue Yao and 51nb come up with, and I encourage all ThinkPad enthusiasts to check out their work. Other exciting projects from him you might be interested on are the T25 Frankenpad, which is a T480 with the 25 Anniversary edition ThinkPad classic keyboard, and the X330, which is a beefed up X230 equipped with a quad-core processor and 13-inch display. Be sure to check those out!
Xue Yao’s website:
A review of the X210:
A review of the X62: